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Continuing the Conversation: VAWA at 20

Since its original passage 20 years ago, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has dramatically changed the conversation, attitude, and work around domestic violence in America.

President Barack Obama signs S. 47, the “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013,” March 7, 2013

President Barack Obama signs S. 47, the “Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013,” (VAWA), which reauthorizes several Violence Against Women Act grant programs through FY 2018; and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 through FY 2017, in the Sidney R. Yates Auditorium at the U.S. Department of Interior in Washington, D.C., March 7, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).  On Tuesday, I had the incredible privilege of attending a commemoration of this milestone held at the National Archives. During the program, I learned more about the history of VAWA – stories recounting the long road leading up to its passage, its victories and challenges over the years, and the lives it has and continues to change. One survivor vividly shared her account of abuse, near death, plans of escape, and eventual freedom from her husband’s victimization. 

Vice President Biden then delivered a powerful address, using the lens of VAWA to chronicle our nation’s evolution surrounding the dialogue on domestic violence and our treatment of women and girls; how this kind of violence no longer represents a “family affair,” but rather behavior that should be exposed to the “sunlight” for the injustice that it is. While I was only in junior high when VAWA first emerged, now as a physician and advocate for women’s health, I recognize the positive impact VAWA has had on the patients and communities I serve. Nevertheless, since joining the Office of the Vice President as a White House Fellow, I am also quickly learning how much more we all still have to do.

Since its original passage two decades ago, VAWA has dramatically changed the conversation, attitude, and work around domestic violence in America. In June of 1990, then-Senator Biden first introduced the bill, seeking to expose the all too pervasive problems of physical and sexual violence, stalking, and homicide – often at the hands of an intimate partner. VAWA’s goals were clear: “…to make streets safer for women; to make homes safer for women; and to protect women’s civil rights.” After four years of grueling testimony by survivors, civil rights groups, researchers, and other impassioned advocates, Congress could no longer deny the magnitude of the issue; the dignity, respect, and welfare of millions of women, their families, and their communities were at stake. VAWA finally passed and was signed into law by President Clinton on September 13, 1994.

VAWA has been reauthorized three times, most recently in 2013.  Since its inception, this critical piece of legislation has been the catalyst for reducing the personal and social costs of violence against women in the U.S. VAWA funding is responsible for higher rates of prosecution and offender accountability. Crucial medical, legal, and social services for survivors have been greatly expanded through the advocacy and assistance provided by agencies awarded VAWA grants. The collection and processing of forensic evidence have improved through the rise of sexual assault nurse examination (SANE) programs and by the increasingly high priority placed on testing formerly abandoned rape kits. Vice President Biden created the 1 is 2 Many campaign in 2011 to address dating violence and sexual assault among teens and young adults. Earlier this year, President Obama also established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. And the Administration has continued to raise awareness and institute federal strategies to confront violence against women and girls globally.

Still, as recent headlines confirm, there is more work to be done – not merely to identify and apprehend offenders, or even to assist survivors and their families; but to prevent violence in the first place. Today, nearly 20% of women in the U.S. have been a victim of completed or attempted rape in their lifetime. Moreover, both young women and men are at high rates of severe physical violence by an intimate partner. We also know that women and girls of color as well as LGBT individuals remain highly vulnerable to victimization. Given the prevalence of the problem, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Preventive Services Task Force, and numerous major medical associations have recommended routine intimate partner violence screening and early referral to intervention services. Through these efforts, healthcare providers like myself can play a significant role in creating a safe space for a conversation around healthy relationships; a conversation that could make a difference not just in attitudes, but also in behaviors and outcomes.

Vice President Biden is taking additional steps to continue the dialogue toward eliminating domestic violence in our nation.  There will be a Summit on Civil Rights and Equal Protection for Women to gather key stakeholders and revisit some of the legal hurdles that remain.  The Office of the Vice President also released a comprehensive report, 1 is 2 Many: Twenty Years Fighting Violence Against Women and Girls, detailing the progress made as well as identifying persistent challenges and opportunities for future success. An addendum to this report highlights the tremendous work and service of over 100 organizations around the country committed to this cause.

As we reflect on the last 20 years, may we each take a moment to recognize the impact of VAWA, express gratitude for the lives that have been saved as a result of this significant law, and then get back to work -- for our patients, our colleagues, our friends, and our families. Let’s make our streets and homes safer for women, and end the violence once and for all.

Tiffany McNair, MD, MPH  is a White House Fellow in the Office of the Vice President, working on issues related to violence against women and health policy.